“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, his reflection on the values of simplicity, self-reliance, and the wisdom of nature. Paul LaBeau, 57, of Manchester, may have had a similar idea 13 years ago when he moved to his home on ten-and-a-half wooded acres adjacent to a field near the western edge of Washtenaw County. And for LaBeau, living deliberately includes gardening and landscaping to his heart’s content.
Growing up in the Detroit Downriver city of Wyandotte, “I always wanted to live in the country,” LaBeau says. One of nine children in his parents’ small house, LaBeau spent some time as a teenager living with his grandmother who kept a small garden, just a few blocks from his parents. “She taught me gardening, and I just took the ball and ran with it,” says LaBeau, “that was my thing.”
Entering LaBeau’s property from the narrow lane of a long driveway, the field nods hello from the left side, and the woods from the right. Within a garden bed, hand-painted wooden signs, a weathered homemade birdhouse perched on a post, and a rusted antique plow point the way to the long circular drive to LaBeau’s house.
Romanesque statues of gargoyles, angels, and cherubs peer out from the clearing within the drive, dotted with mature hardwood trees and evergreens. Multiple islands of garden beds arise from the grassy clearing, around and between the trees. A pole barn, carport, and former child’s playhouse converted into what LaBeau and his longtime girlfriend Beth Travis call their “We Shed,” flank both sides of the drive before the house is in plain sight, nestled inconspicuously among the trees.
As the circular drive winds back towards the field to the north, the scope and size of Paul LaBeau’s masterful gardens and landscaping comes into clearer focus. LaBeau’s labor of love – his passion for gardening and landscaping – is everywhere in sight on his property.
A gentle hillside sloping down from the field toward the house contains what LaBeau says is “the heart of it all.” There, LaBeau’s landscaping features a burbling stream winding down the hillside, cradled by rocks he brought in from a friend’s property and traversed by a wooden foot bridge he built. Edged by delicate fountains, Japanese maples, eclectic objects, succulents, potted plants – and frequented by numerous frogs – the stream flows into two smaller pools, which LaBeau refers to as “the top pond and middle pond,” and ends in a 2,000 gallon koi pond. “It turned out better than I ever imagined. I just had a vision and stuck with it,” says LaBeau.
LaBeau has had no formal training in gardening or landscaping. “Most of my design ideas just come from my mind,” he says.
In the couple’s vision of home and gardens, inside and outside appear to seamlessly meld together. They enjoy antiquing and repurposing found objects. “We go to flea markets, thrift shops, yard sales, estate sales. I’ve always been creative. I like creating things. We like to find things, put them together, and fit them in the garden,” says LaBeau. “And,” he adds, “we do it on the cheap.”
What LaBeau saves in money, he invests in time. Some people dream of gardening in retirement, but he continues to work 45 hours a week as he has done for nearly the last 35 years at Huron Valley Steel in Belleville. Travis, who also works full time, says, “He’s built everything himself. There’s no contractors ever coming in.”
LaBeau’s landscaping has been 10 years in the making, and of what he does now is maintenance, with perennials and annuals added every year. He has learned what plants work on his land and how to save seeds, dry them, and replant them.
“A lot of people think I’m a little nuts because I have so much to take care of,” he says. “I cancelled cable TV 10 years ago, and when I come home I just come out in the yard, even when it’s raining. This is my entertainment.”
The fish and frogs in the stream seem to know LaBeau and Travis. “We actually hand-feed the frogs here. They come right up to us,” says LaBeau. At the edge of the koi pond, he has fashioned a small gazebo and pergola with a bench underneath. Windchimes LaBeau made (an old billiards 8-ball is the dinger) provide soothing sounds and keep the herons from swooping in for a fresh koi catch. “It’s our favorite spot to sit and drink coffee in the morning,” says LaBeau. “Sometimes the dragonflies come in too, and we watch the males compete for the females’ attention. Sometimes we get to see the females laying their eggs on the water.”
On the hillside just east of the stream and ponds is a spacious gazebo LaBeau built entirely from reclaimed barnwood. “I’ve never found another barn-beam gazebo like this, not even on the internet,” he says. “It’s one-of-a-kind and that’s what I like. I like unique things.” At the peak of the gazebo is a $10 window found at the Ann Arbor Antiques Market framed by stained glass the couple put in themselves, keeping the rain out but the sky in view. A vintage glass-topped, wrought iron table and chairs with seating for six is centered in the gazebo, a perfect spot from which to survey all LaBeau’s visionary gardens and landscaping. The interior walls of the gazebo are adorned with hand-painted signs: one Travis made of Michigan’s Vernor’s Ginger Ale, and another LaBeau made hailing the B-52s’ “Love Shack” lyric: “Tin Roof, Rusted.”
Birdhouses that LaBeau’s father makes perch just outside the gazebo and all around the property, where bluebirds and wrens are familiar visitors. Near the stained glass at the peak of the gazebo, a dove has made a nest. Hummingbirds flit by, and orioles whistle in the distance. “The best thing,” says LaBeau, “is sitting and taking everything in, remembering what it was and what it is now. It’s a sense of accomplishment.”
Just below the gazebo is a spacious brick and paver patio. The lions-head fountain at the center, painted in a copper patina, is surrounded by pots, benches, and statues.
Along the top of the hillside trellises LaBeau built from repurposed rebar once used in Michigan highways stand ready for the 15 to 20 varieties of climbing clematis that burst forth in a wall of colors, as do grapes, blackberries, and blueberries, Michigan kiwi, peaches, apples, watermelons, squash, zucchini, peppers, sunflowers, honeysuckle, 20 varieties of hydrangeas, and more than 380 varieties of hostas all around the property. The corrugated tin roof corn crib LaBeau erected next to the trellises houses gardening tools for the hillside harvest.
Also along the top of the hillside, a long, tall tunnel made out of wire fencing supports growing gourds. In the fall Travis will dry and clean those gourds before turning them into works of painted art she sells at craft shows and shops.
To the left of the tunnel is the bee house the couple built, home to mason and leaf cutter bees. Other pollinators include the butterflies attracted to plants such as hyssop and milkweed, which are kept a distance from the pond because the frogs like butterflies as their fresh catch. “There’s always challenges out in the country,” LaBeau said.
The couple’s “We Shed” exudes charm with an old milk chute door stamped with “Wyandotte, MI,” LaBeau’s hometown, tucked into one of the walls. Colored glass bottles and vases sit atop window sashes, and an old art deco hanging light fixture and antique wall sconces add amber light. Painted cabinets came from friends and fencing from Travis’ old house and her parent’s neighbors decorate the outside. It’s a convenient spot to spread out food or grab extra chairs when they are outside with friends at the fire pit. A piece of old wood inside is painted with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” lyric “…And the forest will echo with laughter.” On the back side of the shed a robin chirps from the nest she has built just under the roof’s gable.
LaBeau’s creations within the natural landscape as well as what he has built upon it are astonishing to behold. The work is never done. There is pruning to do in winter, and much time spent watering. Weeds always need to be pulled. Mulching and mowing must be attended to. Most days when he gets home from work, he has dinner and spends the remainder of the evening until dark or beyond tending to his plants, building his creations, or just walking around, sitting on benches, taking it all in. “When you do what you love,” says LaBeau, “you never get sick of it. It’s very rewarding because you start from nothing and see it grow. Experience comes with each season. Every year you learn more and learn from your failures.”
“Yeah,” LaBeau pauses, searches for words, “It’s just peace of mind.”